Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias. By Andrew D. Blechman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 244 pp., $25.
By Janice Harayda
A church at a Florida retirement community is thinking about allowing only people over 55 to become members — an age limit that would exclude Jesus. Andrew Blechman zeros in on absurdities like these in Leisureville, a well-researched but derisive account of his visits to some of America’s largest housing developments for older people, including The Villages in Florida and Sun City in Arizona.
Blechman argues fairly enough that autocratic real-estate barons have carved out vast subdivisions that amount to monocultures, or the social equivalent of a single crop such as rice or bananas, that can cause the entire local economy to crash if the demand drops. He also accuses the developers a host of lesser sins, including requiring residents to sign restrictive covenants that deprive them of many of the usual rights of home owners.
But the tone of Leisureville turns smug when Blechman suggests that some aspects of retirement communities are “a tragic parody” of the better life he and his family have in their diverse Massachusetts town. His targets include what he seems to regard as bad the taste of residents who drive souped-up golf carts around villages that resemble geriatric Club Meds. This overreaching makes Leisureville read at times like an extended Woody Allen joke: Not only are retirement communities morally, socially, and economically indefensible, but their residents hang Thomas Kinkade paintings on their walls. Alas, if the problems with retirement communities are anywhere near as serious as he suggests, adding a few tasteful Mark Rothko reproductions won’t make a difference.
Best line: No. 1: “Boomers typically list 85 as the age when they will finally consider themselves ‘old.’ Not surprisingly, that’s two years longer than actuaries predict many of them will live.” No. 2: “Some deed restrictions [in retirement communities] — and their rigorous enforcement by powerful homeowners’ associations — can be severe to the point of being comical. For instance, one woman in California was repeatedly forced to weigh in her overweight poodle because it hovered around the community’s 30-pound weight limit for dogs.”
Worst line: No. 1: “Women who once burned their bras now pay handsomely for expensive brassieres and plastic surgery.” The early feminists who planned to burn their bras at a Miss America pageant never did so, because Atlantic City officials wouldn’t give them a fire permit. The women threw their bras in a garbage can instead. Even if Blechman’s comment were accurate — which, repeat, it is not — bra-burning is a bedraggled cliché. Nos. 2 and 3: At The Villages, a married couple displayed on their living-room wall “a print by Thomas Kinkade, an evangelical oil painter with an unusually devoted following, whose trademark is Painter of Light.” And a female tour guide is quoted as saying that the same community is “so beautiful – it’s like living in a Thomas Kinkade painting, but in real life.” So was the guide supposed to say, that “it’s like living in that brothel in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”?
Sample chapter titles: “Free Golf!” “Where’s Beaver?” “The Golden Years”
Published: May 2008. Paperback due out in July 2009 with the new subtitle Adventures in a World Without Children.
About the author: Blechman also wrote Pigeons: The Fascinating Story of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.
Furthermore: A more entertaining account of young author’s stay in a retirement community appears in Rodney Rothman’s Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a book that treats the elderly more sympathetically. But you don’t know how much, if any, of that book is fictionalized. Leisureville is more informative, though skewed by its polemical tone and Blechman’s view of age-restricted communities as “age-segregated.”
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© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.